As Syrian troops gain ground, Aleppo rebels propose truce
BEIRUT (AP) -- Staring a punishing and brutal defeat in the face, several Syrian rebel factions on Wednesday proposed a five-day cease-fire in the eastern part of the city of Aleppo so the wounded, sick and other civilians can be evacuated.
The proposal came as Syrian government troops and allied militiamen declared they have seized control of three-quarters of the enclave that the opposition controlled since 2012.
The cease-fire proposal was signed by the Aleppo command center, apparently a reference to the collection of factions fighting inside the eastern enclave. A rebel spokesman said al-Qaida-linked group Fatah al-Sham Front, which has a limited presence in the enclave, will abide by the proposal.
The offer made no mention of a rebel pullout from Aleppo, though the proposal said the fate of the city is to be negotiated after the humanitarian crisis eases.
The Syrian government and its ally Russia had previously rejected a cease-fire for the war-torn city, keeping up the military offensive that has forced rebel retreats and massive displacement of Aleppo civilians. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were meeting for talks on Syria in Germany.
Earlier Wednesday, Syrian government troops and allied militiamen seized more ground in Aleppo's ancient quarters, further widening their control over an enclave in the divided city, Syria's state media and an opposition monitoring group said.
With the latest gains, the endgame for Aleppo, which has been carved up between the government and the rebel side for the past four years, appears to draw even closer. If Aleppo - the country's former commercial hub - is captured by government troops, it would be a turning point in the conflict, putting the four largest cities in Syria and the coastal region back under state control.
Also Wednesday, the state SANA news agency said that Israel launched several surface-to-surface missiles that hit near a military airport west of Damascus, triggering a fire. Israel had no immediate comment.
SANA said the missiles fell within the perimeter of the Mezzeh military airport, the main air base in the Damascus area. It lies on the western edge of the capital and had previously come under rebel fire. No injuries were reported.
It was the second such Israeli strike into Syria recently, according to the Syrian government, following two missiles fired from Lebanese airspace toward the outskirts of Damascus last week.
But Wednesday's attack is believed to be the first from Israel into the vicinity of Damascus in years. Israel is widely believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria in the past few years that have targeted advanced weapons systems, including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles.
The arms are believed to be destined for the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militant group, a close ally of the Syrian government and a fierce enemy of Israel.
Rebel defenses in eastern Aleppo have collapsed rapidly in the face of a massive government assault backed by Russia and thousands of Iranian-backed Shiite fighters.
On Tuesday, Syrian government forces captured Aleppo's centrally located al-Shaar neighborhood, securing about 45 square kilometers (17 square miles) of the besieged enclave less than two weeks after launching their ground offensive.
The offensive was preceded by an intensive bombing campaign that knocked out medical facilities and left the civilian population reeling from the violence. According to the Observatory, 369 civilians, including 45 children, were killed in eastern Aleppo since Nov. 15. The Observatory said 92 civilians, including 34 children, were killed in the government-controlled western Aleppo that came under rebel fire.
SANA said Syrian forces on Wednesday established control over two districts north of the Aleppo Citadel in the heart of the city - the Aghiour and Bab al-Hadid neighborhoods - after rebels abandoned positions and retreated further south.
The new gains have choked the rebels, forcing them to pull back to other parts of the Old City, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A map provided by the Syria army showed a quickly shrinking opposition enclave - a pointed leaf-shaped territory in the center, abutting already government-controlled Aleppo districts.
In a statement, the Observatory said dozens of bodies littered streets stretching from al-Shaar to the southern part of eastern Aleppo, including the Old City, as a result of ongoing intense government bombardment.
Capt. Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razek of the rebel Nour el-Din el-Zinki faction - one of the largest operating inside Aleppo - said the cease-fire proposal was driven by humanitarian concerns because of the rising death toll and intensive destruction. He said currently there was no talk of rebels leaving the city.
The proposal calls for the immediate evacuation of 500 seriously wounded and for allowing civilians wishing to leave to head to northern rural Aleppo, where there is almost no government presence. It also calls for negotiations over the future of the city of Aleppo once the humanitarian crisis eases. Abdel-Razek said this humanitarian pause is to be monitored by the United Nations.
Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher in eastern Aleppo and an outspoken government opponent, said the rebel retreat from large parts of Old Aleppo was "concerning."
"We are exhausted. There is a lot of death and unprecedented destruction," he said.
Associated Press Writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.